Best trees to grow in pots – 12 stunning ideas

Discover the best trees to grow in pots, and make a beautiful feature on your patio

Best trees to grow in pots - olive trees in pots in mediterranean-style outdoor living area
(Image credit: Darren Chung)

Choosing the best trees to grow in pots will make the world of difference to your backyard ideas.

Potted evergreen trees are one of the most versatile container gardening ideas, enabling you to zone your patio and create a secluded seating area. Meanwhile, citrus and olive trees will lend an exotic flavor to a Mediterranean-style garden.

'There are many types of trees you can grow in pots and containers,' says small space gardening expert Emilly Barbosa Fernandes of Housegrail. 'They instantly brighten up any garden, and can become the main focal point.'

Another advantage of planting trees in pots is that you can control their soil type – perhaps growing an acid-loving tree in a chalky area, or creating free-draining conditions in a garden with heavy clay soil.

You can even grow species that wouldn't usually suit your climate, as smaller potted trees can be moved indoors over winter. Indeed, you could choose one of the best indoor trees to surround yourself with nature year round.

Potted trees on patio

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

The best trees to grow in pots

Many different trees can thrive in pots, so look beyond the local garden center for inspiration. 

If you want a low-maintenance planting scheme, then the best trees to grow in pots must be compatible with your local climate, and require minimal pruning.

Consider where you want the tree to be positioned in your garden, as whether it will sit in full sun or receive some shade will be a factor in which varieties will be suitable.

It's important to look at the maximum size of a tree species, and how many years it will take to reach maturity. Some trees are suited to pots for their whole life, while other slow-growing varieties can have a long pot life before needing to be eventually planted in the ground. 

Trees have hungry, thirsty roots, so container size is also key. Ensure you invest in a pot that's big enough for your chosen tree to flourish.

Remember that a tree planted in a pot will dry out more quickly than in the ground, and the smaller the pot size, the more often you will have to water it. 

1. Japanese maple tree

Japanese maple acer in pot in garden

(Image credit: Ian West / Alamy Stock Photo)

Japanese maples – or acer palmatum – are ideal for smaller gardens, as they are slow growing and require minimal pruning or training.  They are also one of the best trees for autumn color.

‘With a variety of showy cascades in foliage and colors ranging from vibrant greens to deep blood reds, this is a showcase tree for container growing,’ says Tammy Sons, owner of Tennessee Nursery.

‘Japanese maple trees do not grow to extreme heights, seldom reaching over 15 feet. My favorite varieties are 'Crimson Queen' and 'Bloodgood', with their added attribute of spectacular fall foliage.’

Meanwhile, Lisa Tadewaldt, arborist and owner of Urban Forest Pro, particularly favors the dwarf maple 'Sharp's Pygmy'. ‘They can live in a pot for hundreds of years,' she says. 'You can ignore them or pamper them – either way they always look great. This is a favorite of serious bonsai artists, and what I personally have on my deck in pots.’

Position Japanese maples in a cool spot that receives some shade during the hottest part of the day, and water regularly in the summer.

2. Lemon tree

A lemon tree in a terracotta pot demonstrating the best trees for a small garden.

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton)

‘I always think there is something very romantic about a lemon tree growing in a pot,’ says Aaron Bertelsen, author of Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots. ‘Perhaps it is the way the scent of the blossom fills a room, or the knowledge that rich people in the past would build dedicated lemon houses to shelter their highly prized trees.’

While lemon trees make fantastic house plants during the winter, they can grow happily outdoors during the spring and summer. This is why planting them in pots is the best solution, so you can bring them indoors in frosty weather.

You can even learn how to grow lemon from seed, to surround yourself with these uplifting trees.

‘Lemons are hungry plants, so make sure you use a good, soil-based compost, adding some grit or sharp sand to improve drainage,’ adds Bertelsen, who recommends the Meyer variety as it flowers throughout the year.

Make sure you understand how to prune lemon trees to get the best out of them, and let them dry out between waterings.

3. Dwarf conifers

Sculptural conifer trees in pots next to patio seating area

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Larger conifers are some of the best trees for privacy and screening in a backyard, but there are a number of smaller species that are perfect for pots.

Some recommended conifers to consider are dwarf varieties of cypress trees, yew trees, mountain pines, and Chinese juniper

‘They are not top-heavy and have an equal branch structure from the central leader to the top,’ says Sons. 

‘Evergreen conifers also offer year-round beauty and they can successfully be trimmed back in order for them to not overwhelm the container.’ 

4. Crape Myrtle

Crape myrtle Lagerstroemia indica 'Terre Chinoise'

(Image credit: Biosphoto / Alamy Stock Photo)

Crape myrtle is a striking tree that offers year-round interest, and grows very well in pots.

‘This beautiful tree has large trumpet-shaped flowers that often have an orange tint to them,’ says Lindsey Hyland, founder of Urban Organic Yield. 'Crape myrtles also have good fall color, with attractive peeling bark. I love how the branches are always thick enough to handle being in pots.’

Choose from flowers of white, pink or purple, which bloom from late spring through summer. Some varieties flower until the first frost in fall.

Crape myrtle trees need full sun to thrive, and in frost-prone areas will need to be overwintered in a greenhouse or conservatory.

5. Bay tree

Front door flanked by bay trees in pots

(Image credit: Brent Darby)

As well as creating a sculptural feature, bay trees have wonderfully aromatic leaves that can be used in cooking fresh or dried.

Bay trees look particularly stunning in pairs flanking a doorway, or can be positioned next to seating areas on the patio. They thrive in containers and can be clipped into attractive ball or pyramid shapes.

‘A bay tree is very easy to look after, provided you give it a good sunny spot and feed it regularly,’ says Bertelsen. ‘Prune every spring, both to keep it at the size you want it and to reduce any congestion.’

It’s a good idea to repot bay trees every few years to keep them healthy and encourage fresh growth.

6. Banana tree

Banana tree in garden

(Image credit: Oleksandr Sokolenko / Alamy Stock Photo)

Banana trees are some of the best trees to grow in pots if you want to add an exotic air to your patio. But bear in mind they are usually grown in the garden for their ornamental leaves, rather than for fruit, unless you live in a climate of at least 60ºF (15°C) for most of the year.

‘If you live in a cooler climate, then a banana tree still brings a taste of tropics to your landscaping,’ says Tadewaldt. ‘The growth of these trees is usually stunted by the colder weather enough that they can live in the pot for an extended period of time.'

Smaller varieties of banana tree are particularly well suited to climates with colder winters, as they can be brought inside and enjoyed as a houseplant. 

7. Rhododendron

Rhododendron arboreum var. roseum

(Image credit: Gina Kelly / Alamy Stock Photo)

As well as the popular shrubs, rhododendrons are also available in tree form – R. arboreum. Though after several decades they can eventually reach great heights of over 40 feet, they are slow-growing trees that will live happily for years in a pot.

‘I really like rhododendron – it is such a pretty flowering tree with red and white flowers in the summer,’ says Hyland. As an evergreen tree, it possesses attractive dark green leaves year round.

‘My favorite thing about it is its ability to thrive in stunted, acidic, or shallow soil conditions.’

8. Olive tree

Best trees to grow in pots - olive trees in pots in mediterranean-style outdoor living area

(Image credit: Darren Chung)

Adding Mediterranean flair to the garden, olive trees are perfectly suited to growing in containers, as they can be moved to safety during excessively cold winters.

‘Olive trees are not fond of winter, so make sure to cover them if you know a frost is coming,’ says Barbosa Fernandes.

‘They love warmth and sun, and they also do well in dry areas. However, they do need the right conditions to produce olives.’ 

In order for the trees to fruit, they will need two months with temperatures below 50°F (10°C), but above 14°F (-10°C), as well as fluctuation between day and night temperatures. Though self-fertile, olive trees benefit from cross pollination.

‘If you don’t have the right conditions to grow olives, don’t be too disappointed, as they’re such elegant evergreen trees,’ says Barbosa Fernandes. ‘Fertilize them in the spring for the best results.’

9. Wedding Cake Tree 

Wedding cake tree Cornus controversa 'Variegata'

(Image credit: Steffen Hauser / Botanikfoto / Alamy Stock Photo)

Also known as Cornus controversa 'Variegata', the wedding cake tree is a variegated dogwood tree. 

‘The white in the leaves adds interest and it naturally grows in layers – like the layers of a cake, hence its name – and pruning will help to emphasize this form,’ says Tadewaldt.

However, regular pruning isn’t essential, and as the tree is slow-growing, it will live happily in its pot for a long time, as long as the soil is fertile. 

‘Eventually, however, this tree will outgrow the pot and need to be transplanted,’ adds Tadewaldt.

10. Apple tree

Apple trees prune

(Image credit: Unsplash)

Smaller varieties of apple tree are perfect for growing in pots on the patio. Not only are varieties grown on dwarf rootstock usually quicker to fruit, but they are often better quality than larger trees.

When choosing a variety of apple tree, you need to consider pollination. ‘Self-fertile cultivars are available, although it’s generally recommended to have at least two different partner trees nearby for cross-pollination,' explains Period Living’s gardening expert Leigh Clapp.

'Opt for another variety of apple tree that flowers at the same time – the flowers of a crab apple will pollinate most apples.'

If you only have room for one apple tree, Red Falstaff is a great choice as it is heavy cropping and very hardy.

11. Starry magnolia

Starry magnolia

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While most types of magnolia will grow too large to plant in pots, starry magnolia is a more compact, bushy tree that produces the most beautiful white, star-shaped flowers.

The tree flowers in the spring and exudes a delicate fragrance, adding a romantic air to a patio seating area.

Position starry magnolia in a sheltered spot, and plant in neutral to acid soil that is well drained.

When established, they are low maintenance, and require only mulching in spring and a light prune in the summer.

12. Kumquat

Kumquat tree in a pot in a garden

(Image credit: Francesco Maltinti / Alamy Stock Photo)

Citrus trees make for some of the best indoor trees, but you can grow them outside in the right climates. 

‘If you’ve never tried kumquat, then you most definitely should – you can eat the entire thing, skin and all,’ says Barbosa Fernandes. 

Producing small orange fruits and flowers that bloom in the summer, these compact  trees can be easily grown in pots, and are one of the hardiest citrus fruits.

‘Position them in full sun, and plant in moist, well-draining soil. However, you don’t need to worry about cross-pollination or cold weather killing it down to 18°F (-8°C),’ adds Barbosa Fernandes.

What trees can stay in pots?

Trees can stay in pots indefinitely if you can find a container large enough to accommodate their maximum mature size. Otherwise, you will need to plant them in the ground when they grow too large.

Opt for dwarf varieties of container-friendly trees, such as Japanese maples and small conifers. Bay trees, small citrus trees and olive trees are also good options.

Bear in mind that most trees will need potting on to a larger container every few years, when they have outgrown their pot.

What small trees grow well in pots outdoors?

Many small trees grow well in pots outdoors, but this will largely depend on your local climate. 

In warmer regions, for example, citrus trees can stay outside year round, but in regions that experience cold winter nights of below 50°F (10°C), they will need to be brought inside.

Japanese maple trees are excellent choices for pots in most climates, and can survive very cold winters where temperatures reach as low as -20°F (-28°C).

As editor of Period Living, Britain's best-selling period homes magazine, Melanie loves the charm of older properties. I live in a rural village just outside the Cotswolds in England, so am lucky to be surrounded by beautiful homes and countryside, where I enjoy exploring. Having worked in the industry for almost two decades, Melanie is interested in all aspects of homes and gardens. Her previous roles include working on Real Homes and Homebuilding & Renovating, and she has also contributed to Gardening Etc. She has an English degree and has also studied interior design. Melanie frequently writes for Homes & Gardens about property restoration and gardening.